Spencer Shagoury ’17 grew up in Maine, near Waterville. His high school was small, underfunded and mostly white, and people there saw Bowdoin as the gold standard. This was his normal, until he got here.
“It’s not like other people are saying things that are demeaning in any way, but there's this constant inside battle that's, like, well, other people went to this really fancy private school and they had SAT tutors and—not that my parents didn't give me what I needed—but I didn't have that,” he said.
He said he asks himself, “Do I belong here? Am I up to these people’s levels?”
“I think that's been a constant thing on my mind and finding my own personal confidence in the way of that has been challenging for sure. Like, proving to myself that I deserve to be at Bowdoin,” Shagoury said.
“My friends from home are what people here would call hicks and my friends here are what people from home would call elitist snobs,” he added. “When they met each other—all super nice people that I love so much—there's just such a huge disconnect between them.”
Shagoury straddles two worlds with drastically different expectations, and that puts pressure on him. Not only does Shagoury need to manage time between school and friends, but he also holds a job to pay for the things his friends can already afford.
“There’s a delicate walk for sure between working the right number of hours so you can afford some things that you might not be able to do—I got to go skiing last weekend—but also making sure you have enough time to, like, spend with friends,” he said.
Hanging out with friends is not always simple. There is a certain amount of capital required in order to go to a restaurant or ski slopes.
“You make a new friend and they're like, ‘Oh a couple of guys are going to Little Tokyo this Friday.’ And you're like, well, payday isn't till the Friday after that, but you don't want to say that to someone you just met,” he said. “You don't want to label yourself, because you're more than your bank statement. You're more than that. So, you don't want to say something that labels you as that, but at the same time—you just can't go.”
Spencer Shagoury `17
When interactions or shared activities revolve around spending money, wealthy students have the upper hand. As long as capital-intensive social activities remain important, poorer students bear the burden of operating within the norms of a high-class world.
Sometimes, students find a balance. Poorer students work harder so that they can afford access to these activities. Most wealthier students do not have unlimited spending money. They too turn down dinners out of a desire to spend less.
Despite these instances, class underlies fundamental power dynamics in our social world. Class influences how people dress and what they do in their free time, how they view themselves at Bowdoin and how they plan their summers and vacations. It affects who interacts with whom and their common interests, experiences or preferences. But most importantly, it affects what we each consider normal.
Class can be easy to ignore at Bowdoin because the College is a powerful equalizer. Within our on-campus community, students have roughly equal access to a vast array of resources. Great financial aid and familiar amenities such as Polar Points and dining halls with really good food, as well as policies like mandatory underclassmen housing and first year car restrictions all level the playing field and work to create an environment where students face as few disadvantages as possible.
People, like Evan Montilla ’17, notice this.
“I feel like the school is really good at providing the things I would see, that I would notice. Back home, class was like what food people were eating, what clothes people were wearing. But here, if you’re not so great financially, the school helps out a lot, and that’s been so key,” he said. “Everyone gets to eat really nice here.”
Here, no one has to worry about where their meals are coming from or whether they can afford to go to parties on the weekends.
But they might be worrying about other details like how they will afford the cost of a spring break trip or a new pair of hiking boots—or how they’ll ask for financial assistance.
Evan Montilla ’17
At Bowdoin, much of what is taken for granted is new for less wealthy students. This can be a difficult adjustment.
“While some students can afford to go skiing or drive to Portland every weekend, others have to work 10 or 20 hours per week to support themselves and their families. While some students regularly have hundreds of dollars on their OneCard accounts thanks to their generous and wealthy parents, others worry about being able to do laundry because you can't deposit less than $25 to a OneCard,” wrote Jesse Ortiz ’16, who organized a discussion about class last spring, in an email to the Orient.
If a poor student wants to have wealthier friends, overcoming these anxieties is not enough. They must strategize how to fit in.
Mitsuki Nishimoto ’17 dresses well. She’s on the smaller side and wears big glasses that make her look put together regardless of what else she has on, which is usually black—she is from New York. Her easygoing attitude belies how much effort she has put into her clothing choices.
Since high school, when a nonprofit program connected her with Spence, an all-girls private school on the Upper East Side, Nishimoto has understood the value of passing: the process of making your appearance match the norms of those around you, despite differences in class.
“Especially going to an all-girls school, I think people really looked at what everyone else was wearing, and I knew what was cool. I knew what could be seen as a marker of privilege,” she said. “I would make my mom go buy all these things—on sale, obviously—and I would tell her, ‘These are the things that are cool, and these are the things that you have to buy for me.’ I think, in those ways I was able to pass, because that wasn't fundamentally changing my financial circumstances. It was just something that I could wear to fit in.”
Mitsuki Nishimoto ’17
Although she described her class as “lower-middle income,” her parents raised her in an apartment in a predominately wealthy area. “We didn’t live in the nicest apartment but we still lived in this neighborhood, so I would say that I could get by telling people that I lived on the Upper East Side,” she said.
“I grew up going to the Met and going to Carl Schurz Park and Central Park. That was my playground,” Nishimoto continued.
“I think I had immense privilege, despite my family circumstances, and I think they really made sure that I had those experiences, to make up for what they couldn't practically give me. So just being able to say that. Y’know, some people have never been to the Met before, and being able to say, ‘Oh yeah, I used to go there all the time.’ That just puts me at a different place with social capital, especially at a place like Spence,” she added.
Her effort helps her feel comfortable at places like Spence or Bowdoin, but it helps wealthier students feel comfortable as well. When students from lower-income backgrounds assimilate to upper class students’ norms, these norms get validated. Wealthier peers can avoid confronting uncomfortable issues of class.
Like many other wealthier students, Sophie Binenfeld ’17 wasn’t ever really forced to reflect on class before attending Bowdoin. While she was aware of conspicuous displays of wealth, she was more comfortable downplaying her class—she transferred to a high school that required uniforms because she felt they were equalizing.
Binenfeld is from Los Angeles and bought her first winter coat her senior year of high school. Once she knew she was going to Maine for college, her older sister took her shopping in New York City. At her sister’s suggestion, she purchased a Canada Goose jacket—a frequent touchpoint in class-related discussions at Bowdoin.
“We were at Bloomingdale's and she was like, ‘This is the kind of coat you need.’ And I was like, ‘Is it the warmest?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, all your friends will have them,’” said Binenfeld, recounting her shopping experience.
“And I saw the price tag and I was like, ‘Jesus!’ But I don't know how much warm weather gear costs. And I was lucky enough to call my mom and be like, ‘Mom, Molly said to get this coat. Is that OK?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, if that's what she said to get. You're going to be warm, it's freezing in Maine, and you'll have it forever.’ So I bought it,” she said.
Sophie Binenfeld ’17
When a campus event last year drew attention to her jacket as a status symbol, Binenfeld's understanding of her class changed.
“It forces you to think about the money that you've had access to your whole life that you don't realize you did,” she said.
But for so many less wealthy students, awareness of class is not new.
“It’s shocking to me that a lot of students on campus don't know how much their parents make,” said Nishimoto. “Because as someone who's always had to fill out financial aid forms and just be mindful of that, I've always known how much my parents make.”
Henry Bredar ’19 shares a similar experience with Binenfeld.
He is on the rugby team and was also on the baseball team last year. Bredar describes these teams as fundamentally different in terms of class: he said that while the baseball team is “incredibly wealthy,” the rugby team feels more socioeconomically diverse.
The baseball team is predominately white and 74 percent of the 31 players on the 2016 roster attended private high schools. The rugby team does not publish the high schools of its team members.
Bredar is used to environments like that of the baseball team—he went to a wealthy, private all-boys school in his hometown, Washington, D.C. and said he was “middle of the pack in terms of affluence there.” Upon arrival at Bowdoin, he experienced more of the same.
“In my first year, really, class was completely irrelevant for me,” he said. “It was never a conversation I had. It was never something that came up with my friends. It was never something that came up with my teammates or anything like that.”
Henry Bredar ’19
Class-skewed spaces like the baseball team are one factor among many that allow wealthier students to not address class during their day-to-day experiences at Bowdoin.
There are many similar groups and spaces at Bowdoin. Examples such as the equestrian team or the club ski team stand out. Though these are more accessible with assistance from the dean’s office—students receiving aid can ask for supplemental funding for expensive activities—students need financial means to participate in and even encounter these experiences in the first place.
Other class-skewed groups include tennis, field hockey and lacrosse—programs funded more often at affluent high schools. Seventy-seven percent of the current men’s tennis team attended private school as did sixty-six percent of the current field hockey team. But it is difficult to generalize.
“I can't think of a team where I can't also think of the exceptions,” said Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Leana Amáez.
The Orient is one such organization. The staff members of the Orient tend to be consistently wealthier and whiter than Bowdoin’s student body. Of the paper’s 10 top editors, seven attended private high schools and all are white.
Class segregation occurs in less affluent circles as well. Students spoke with the Orient about a number of spaces or groups on campus that tend to be composed of poorer students. Often these spaces address other forms of identity, like race or gender.
Kathya Marte ’18 spoke of how this process of segregation began with the start of her first year.
“It was the week of matriculation and they would set us up in groups of four or five different people about where you come from or whatever. But even in those conversations, sometimes I was the only Latina or the only poor person, and I would notice that the rich people would have more stuff to talk about,” she said. “Just because, ‘Oh, my dad also has a house in the Hamptons’ or something, or if they went to rival boarding schools or … they would have something to talk about and I couldn’t relate to it because I didn’t go through these experiences.”
Amáez has led approximately 15 students in an Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) program almost every semester for the past three years. During the introductory session with each group she asks every student to introduce themselves, addressing various aspects of their identities such as race, ethnicity, family and cultural background, sexual orientation and class.
According to Amáez, in every IGD introduction, it’s very rare that a student will describe their class status without using the word “middle.” Wealthier students refer to themselves as upper-middle class while poorer students say lower-middle class.
“No one wants to leave the middle – there’s something honorable about the middle and there's something really stereotyped about outside of it,” said Amáez.
Some students do come from the middle class, but for the vast majority of Bowdoin students, that is just not true. According to data from a report by the Equality of Opportunity Project republished in the New York Times last month, 69 percent of Bowdoin students come from families in the top fifth of the national income distribution. As of fall 2016, 44 percent of the student body received financial aid, meaning 56 percent of students pay the College’s full $63.5 thousand in tuition.
“That’s a lot of money! Right? And that's not to say that isn't a strain; that's not to say that some of those students don't have some loans that have to be taken out as a result,” Amáez said. “But 56 percent don't qualify for aid on a need basis. That means their parents are making good money!”
In Amáez’ opinion, students are not adequately acknowledging the exceptional nature of their backgrounds. She’s not alone.
Read a candid converstaion about class between four students
According to Walter Chacón ’17, who is performing research on the relationship between social norms and class at NESCAC colleges for an honors project in sociology, Bowdoin normalizes social customs and behaviors that allow us to not recognize our wealth.
Chacón offered the example of the meritocratic myth as an idea that contributes to this normalization.
“I think it kinda gives the impression that regardless of where you come from or your social background, we’re all on an equal playing field, and I think that’s a pitfall to attending a really selective elite college,” he said. “That everyone can come in and think that we’re all on the same page because we all worked really hard, and we’re all really talented and we really achieved. That’s the only way we got into Bowdoin. I think we should question that.”
“A lot of people at Bowdoin have lives that are very atypical. Whether that’s because they have a second home—for example, a summer home. People normalize that at Bowdoin. But that’s not normal—by any standards—if you look at the composition of the United States,” he said.
“It’s easy to take that for granted, and think that that’s normal, but if we don’t question that then we kind of normalize the immense privilege that people have when they come to Bowdoin,” added Chacón.
Walter Chacón ’17
Marte—who said she is currently taking a year off “to recharge”—spent some of her first few weeks at Bowdoin looking up her peers’ families on Wikipedia.
“I would Wikipedia people’s last name and I’m like, ‘Wow, their family is worth x amount of money.’ These are the people I’ve read about, but I actually go to school with these people and I interact with them—or, I just go to school with them, I don’t really interact with them,” she said.
“Before I went to Bowdoin I wasn’t ashamed to say, oh, you know, I live in a single-parent household, a low-income household, went to an urban, public, low-income high school,” said Marte. “However, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing that when I was at Bowdoin, because I didn’t want people to feel bad for me or thinking less of me because of my background.”
Although the wealth at Bowdoin came as a shock to Marte, money alone did not keep her from sharing her experiences with wealthier peers. Marte felt that she came to Bowdoin unprepared for its academic rigor.
Regardless of a student’s background, discussions about class are often characterized by discomfort and shame. When talking about class, there are assumptions that go along with class that are negative and reduce their experience to a class stereotype.
Attending Bowdoin comes with opportunities to access resources unavailable to students back home, but can also be accompanied by discomfort. Students like Marte worry about what happens when they fail to assimilate to elite standards.
“In terms of jobs, internships, I feel like I had ... I had to network with people outside of my community to get the jobs that I want, because they don’t have access to the opportunities that I’m interested in,” said Marte. “Although I know that sometimes it is hard to be at Bowdoin, I want to push through because I know that the networks that come from being a Bowdoin student, and also the resources as well, outweigh going to a school where I feel more comfortable.”
Wealthy students have different concerns surrounding stereotypes. Some of these students are afraid of coming across as being unaware of their privilege or being seen as inadequately working to address it.
“It's like … someone who is tangentially aware of how lucky they are but also really ... loves playing lacrosse like I do, or really ... loves going to ski like I do,” said Drew Van Kuiken ’17, describing his worry about playing into the stereotype of a typical student who attended boarding school.
Drew Van Kuiken ’17
“I'm really apprehensive about doing [this interview],” said Binenfeld. “It’s super important to talk about, but it’s something at Bowdoin that we just don't talk about because you don't want to look like a rich asshole—and people don't know those things about me unless I tell them.”
Binenfeld feels like a fear of negative perceptions related to specific things like expensive jackets stops conversations about class before they happen.
“I often feel really judged for my coat. I know it's stupid, but I don't want you to judge me for it; talk to me about it. Let's talk about the differences in how we grew up, because I'm sure there were a lot of things that were the same,” she said.
“I think on both sides of the spectrum there are assumptions that go along with that that are negative,” Amáez said. “Once you label it, you're subject to the notions of everyone else about what that label means, and it takes your really personal story and relationship to class out.”
But nearly every student the Orient talked to said addressing class on one's personal level is where a productive conversation about class starts—especially for wealthier students.
“I think it is kinda like the conversations about race we've been having on campus where white students have to acknowledge their own whiteness and their privilege,” said Nishimoto. “And for the most part students who are not wealthy—this is something that they've had to think about. And it now has to come from the students who never had have to think about it to confront.”
Bredar and Marte echoed this sentiment.
“It's not people of lower classes’ job to teach people of higher classes about this issue,” Bredar said. “That’s where the responsibility really is, in a way, on the people of higher class.”
“Some of the friends you do make are in the classroom, I feel like people notice—people notice! They can tell people’s background from what they say, how they act, what they dress. Foster relationships there,” suggested Marte.
“I think that the burden doesn’t always have to be on the person from a marginalized group,” she said.
Despite having a significantly larger endowment and spending more on financial aid, Bowdoin is not admitting significantly more students who receive financial aid. This has been the status quo at Bowdoin for the past 15 years. In 2002, roughly 40 percent of the student body received aid. In 2006, it was still 40 percent. As of the fall of 2016, 44 percent of the student body receives financial aid, meaning that over the past 15 years, the percentage of the student body receiving financial aid has increased by only 4 percentage points.
A study from the Equality of Opportunity Project republished in the New York Times last week laid bare the socioeconomic composition of the Bowdoin student body. The report shows 20 percent of the Bowdoin student body comes from the top 1 percent of the income spectrum (family income greater than aprox $630,000 per year,) which is more students than there are in the bottom three income quintiles combined. 69 percent of students' family incomes fall in the top quintile of the national income distribution, meaing their family made more than aprox. $110,000 per year. Only 3.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent (families who made less than aprox. $20,000 per year).
The study also revealed that the financial composition of the student body did not change significantly over the period it addressed (between 1998 and 2009). According to data from the College’s common data set and Office of Institutional Research and Consulting, the percentage of students receiving financial aid remained at roughly 45 percent of the student body from 2008 to 2015.
Since 2008, Bowdoin’s endowment per student has increased at an average rate of 3.8 percent per year reaching $1.5 million per student in 2015. Its average financial aid grant has increased at an average rate of 3.2 percent per year, but the College’s comprehensive fee increased at a similar average rate of 3.2 percent per year.
These numbers raise significant questions about the effectiveness of the College’s need-blind admissions policy (which has been in place for over 15 years) in actively creating socioeconomically diverse classes. They also indicate that the school’s ever increasing comprehensive fee is at odds with this mission.
Bowdoin regularly talks about diversity as a priority and socioeconomic diversity is a big part of this. The College has made real steps over this period, such as eliminating loans as an aspect of financial aid packages in 2008 under former President Barry Mills and dropping the application fee for first-generation and financial aid-seeking applicants in 2016.
President Clayton Rose confirmed this mission and his desire to build more socioeconomic diversity, but argued that maintaining a roughly steady level of financial aid recipients itself has taken work.
“The steady state of students who are attending elite schools who come from the low economic strata suggests that there’s been some real work that’s kept that number at that level and I think that our experience bears that out. I think we’ve worked really hard to make that happen and a number of our peer schools, perhaps all of them, have as well. And I think the fruit of that is that we’ve been able to keep that steady.”
Both Rose and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Whitney Soule defended the College’s need-blind admissions policy.
“I would say that being need-blind is a huge opportunity for this college,” said Soule. “To put the emphasis on going out to find the students who have the qualities that we’re seeking and look at them as people and to be going through a recruitment and selection process that is separating them from need. And I think it’s an incredibly important value.”
Soule also said that the need-blind process actually does create socioeconomically diverse classes.
“We are not placing investigation or emphasis on [socioeconomic diversity] on a particular application. How much does the student need? But by being need-blind, it naturally is setting our admit decisions across the array of the socioeconomic strata.”
While the College does enroll students from across the socioeconomic spectrum, the newly published data indicate that it enrolls a disproportionate number of students from the high end of the income spectrum.
Rose emphasized the structural factors that prevent Bowdoin from creating socioeconomically diverse classes.
“Our challenge—and we know this is true and the study reinforces it—our challenge and every school’s challenge is that the number of low income students that apply to elite schools is lower than it should be.”
Soule added that often, students lower on the income spectrum are not thinking about and not prepared for elite schools like Bowdoin.
“If you think about the country at large and much of education ... there’s public funding in every state that educates most of our young people,” she said. “And the disparity of the quality of education, across resources—that also plays out in preparation for higher ed and who’s thinking about going to a school like Bowdoin and how we find those students.”
Soule and Rose both emphasized that admissions outreach and recruiting has a big effect on who applies to Bowdoin and is the primary tool the school uses to attract lower income students. The more lower-income students that become aware of Bowdoin, the more that apply and the more the College is able to admit.
Every year, Bowdoin sends its 14 admissions officers across the country to meet with prospective applicants at high schools and college fairs. Last year, they visited 450 schools. Sending them to areas of socioeconomic diversity is a priority.
Admissions employs various methods to attract lower-income students including partnering with community based college-prep organizations so that more lower income students are aware of Bowdoin and traveling with groups of admissions counselors from other peer schools like Pomona and Swarthmore.
Soule said that for the past three years she has abandoned the practice of taking a two-week trip to New York City where she would hold a series of information sessions with students at specific schools, many of them private. Instead, for the past three years, the admissions team has held a few information session nights and invited students from across the city.
She says this gets prospective students who are lower on the income spectrum in the room with a more diverse range of applications and helps them see themselves in the context of a more diverse Bowdoin rather than the more limited applicant pool that might show up to an information session at any given school.
“What it does is it brings a lot of people into a room, often with a lot more kids and their parents from all over the city from different boroughs and from completely different kinds of high schools. And when you sit in that room and look around at the people who are interested in Bowdoin, that’s what our prospect pool is, so that’s been really effective.”
This is a strategy Soule hopes to employ in other cities in the future.
The steady increase in the cost of college is a factor that works against its ability to provide access to lower-income students. As the cost of college goes up, so does the amount of financial aid required to send a student to Bowdoin. If rate of growth of financial aid grants does not exceed the rate of tuition growth, the financial aid dollars available to distribute will only cover roughly the same number of students.
Addressing the increasing cost of college is a priority for Rose.
“We’re going through serious exercises to understand our budget, to take out whatever fat—fat isn’t even the word because there’s no fat in it—but really making tough choices about where we’re going to spend our money,” he said.
Currently, roughly 64 percent of the budget goes to payroll and 36 percent of the budget goes to operations. Rose said touching payroll is not an option and that the focus of his budget review will be on the 34 percent that is dedicated to operations.
According to Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando, the budget office has implemented a new practice this budget season that requires departments to justify every expenditure in their budgets and presumes a 0 percent growth rate rather than the traditional 2-4 percent increase.
Orlando said the practice is aimed at slowing the growth of departmental budgets and identifying areas of spending that may no longer be priorities.
Still, some of the increasing cost is tied to inflation—around 2-3 percent currently—and is likely inevitable.
Bowdoin’s performance in admitting students from lower on the income spectrum does not compare poorly to its peer schools.
Jordan Richmond ’16, who worked on the Equality of Opportunity project as a predoctoral fellow with Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty, said that one of the study’s key findings is that across the board, the percentage of poor students at elite schools has remained the same over the course of the study, from 1998 to 2009.
Despite expressing support for a socioeconomically diverse class, Rose believes that a student body that reflects an equal distribution across the income spectrum of the country is not realistic and is not Bowdoin’s mission.
“The idea that we should look like the country—I think that’s unrealistic in that not every student is prepared for Bowdoin and many students from low-income backgrounds are engaged in educational experiences in junior high and high and grammar school which leave them ill-prepared. Our job is to find all those great students, if we can, that have the ability to do the work here and get them to apply to Bowdoin,” he said.
“The real thing, I think, to take away from all of this is that how you interpret your results totally depends on what you think the goals of a college are and what our model of education should aim to accomplish,” said Richmond.
Gideon Moore contributed to this report.
We talked to over 15 students and 12 administrators about health at Bowdoin. Many of our peers have found frustration in the complexity and obscurity of who has not only the power, but also the judgment to make these decisions. Moreover, how does Bowdoin support a student whose health concerns cannot necessarily be solved with a medical leave?
Austin Goldsmith ’18 was two weeks into her first year at Bowdoin when she got her first concussion during a volleyball game. Her struggle to make it to classes led to several meetings with former Dean of First Year Students Janet Lohmann, who suggested Goldsmith take a medical leave—an option in which Goldsmith was not interested.
“[Does] a strong word from Lohmann make [my leave] involuntary? Does that mean it’s not my decision? ... What power or autonomy do I have?” said Goldsmith in a phone interview with the Orient. “As much as the [Bowdoin Student] Handbook gives you information, it’s so unclear and it’s so vague.”
According to Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, medical leave cases are considered on a case-by-case basis. However, the deans have displayed a pattern of strongly recommending a voluntary medical leave to students.
Approximately 10 to 20 students are on voluntary medical leave each semester, according to Kim Pacelli, the senior associate dean of student affairs. However, many students feel pressured by the deans’ recommendations and question whether these leaves are elective in practice or if the College is making the decision for them.
Read stories of eight students' experiences with medical leave and mental health at Bowdoin.
The Handbook states students may “request a voluntary medical leave in the event that the student believes that physical and/or mental health concerns are significantly interfering with the ability to succeed at Bowdoin [or to recover].”
Only if a student is presenting a “significant threat” to themselves or others while on campus, the deans, in consultation with the health care provider, may force a student to go home. The Handbook classifies this as an involuntary medical leave. According to Pacelli, no students are on involuntary medical leave this semester. These leaves, Pacelli noted, are “pretty rare.”
In the case of voluntary medical leaves, occasionally a student may enter the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs knowing he or she would like to request a leave. However, some students question whether a leave will benefit their health, resist postponing their graduation date or feel hesitant to go through the process of readmission upon return. Many times, students feel the conversation with their dean is what ultimately guides their decision.
Former Dean of First Year Students Janet Lohmann claimed to be “a fan of the leave.”
“My goal is that I want students to be successful at Bowdoin,” said Lohmann. “If I feel that students are limping along and compromising their success merely for the sake of being here, then really I want [the student] to be able to perform at the level [the student is] capable of.”
The administrators who spoke with the Orient on this subject shared this sentiment.
Many students who spoke with the Orient felt this pressure from their deans as well.
“[The deans are] very pushy. They’re like ‘this is what we want—we want you to do well. Bowdoin is four years of your life and we want you to get the best time with it, not struggling to get through it, for reasons beyond your control,’” Goldsmith said. “That was the biggest message I got. We want you to have the best experience possible.”
While unsure how her concussion would progress, Goldsmith knew she would be happier to remain at school, rather than leave for the year and re-matriculate the following fall, as is asked of first years taking a medical leave their fall semester.
“[Lohmann] could have been right… She was coming from ‘oh we’ve seen this before and we’ve seen this go both ways.’ I’m sure she’s seen a lot of more people do poorly than do well,” continued Goldsmith. “[But] she didn’t know me the way that I knew me.”
Goldsmith did not take a leave that fall semester.
“CAN THEY MAKE ME LEAVE?”
A conversation between the student and his or her dean often plays the biggest role in influencing the student’s decision to take a leave.
Prior to this type of conversation, Pacelli noted that she looks at the student’s academic performance—which includes class attendance (a red flag when a student misses three weeks of classes), completion of work and any additional comments from faculty. She also looks at his or her conduct—whether the student has been in any disciplinary trouble with the College.
However, considering the case-by-case nature of each student’s mental or physical health problems, the dean’s advisal “should have the recommendation of the [medical] provider,” according to Pacelli. “They always do.”
A Bowdoin student’s medical provider includes Bowdoin Counseling, the Bowdoin Health Center or a medical professional unaffiliated with the College.
“I think sometimes our office gets a bad rap of—and an unfair one—that we’re looking to send everybody on med leave all the time. I don’t think that’s accurate,” Pacelli said.
Though the dean’s office may rely on a health care provider for this recommendation, the student’s health information is only shared with the student’s permission under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In the case of a concussion, the Health Center informs the student’s dean of how many days of brain rest the student requires so that the deans may share that information with the student’s professors.
Counseling or the Health Center can share a student’s health information with the student’s dean or parents only in the cases deemed “a significant threat to the health or safety of a student or other individuals.” Such a threat, as outlined in the Handbook, would warrant an involuntary medical leave.
Many students under voluntary medical leaves, however, still feel confused as to whether the decision is their own.
“I really felt a lot of pressure from the administration. I remember scanning the Handbook with my dad, being like can they make me leave?” Goldsmith said.
Megan Retana ’19, who is currently on a medical leave, echoed Goldsmith.
“There was initially a lack of clarity in what they could offer me, what additional help they could give me and what the policies were,” said Retana in a phone interview with the Orient.
Following a hospitalization for mental health reasons in the spring of her first year, Retana agreed to take off the rest of the semester and this current fall semester per the evaluation of the Counseling Center and her dean. The final decision was negotiated in a phone call in June between Retana’s mother and Assistant Dean of First Year Students Khoa Khuong, according to Retana.
“My mom had been advocating for me to go back in the fall because we both thought I could do it and then they [said] no,” said Retana. “Counseling was concerned about my well-being while I had a different opinion on what that was or what would help me.”
While both Retana and her mother wanted her to return in the fall, Retana agreed to take the fall semester off because the deans told her they believed this was the only way Bowdoin’s Readmission Committee would allow her to come back to campus.
The readmission process requires a short application, in which the student must prove their readiness to re-enter life at the College. This requires documentation from the student’s health care provider. The committee—comprised of members of the dean’s office, Residential Life and Admissions and advised by the directors of Counseling and the Health Center—then determines whether the student is healthy enough to come back to campus.
According to Retana, the decision to leave felt involuntary though it is recorded as voluntary because she did, under this pressure, consent to the leave.
“[The problem] was more in terms of lack of transparency, or clarity, or organization on their part because...they didn’t [initially] tell me [in the spring] that I had to take [the fall] semester off,” Retana said. “Had they offered those things in the first place, I wouldn’t have been upset.”
She said although she ultimately appreciated her time off, she wished the process was clearer.
“I wanted to make my own decisions but at the same time I’m grateful to the school for stepping in because I’m so grateful for this semester off,” Retana said. “But I do wish there had been more consistency throughout the process.”
“EDUCATIONAL NOT THERAPEUTIC COMMUNITY”
The College views its role of “stepping in” as necessary in preventing a student’s health from impeding on the rest of his or her life at Bowdoin.
“Bowdoin is an educational community, not a therapeutic community,” said Foster. “So if somebody really needs the time to regain their health ... it’s oftentimes better to seek the care that you need in order to fully regain your health so you can be here and be successful.”
Director of Counseling Services Bernie Hershberger, whose office is independent of the dean’s, said it does not push students to leave against their will.
“If it’s better for the student to stay on campus then that’s going to be the first priority and that’s what we’re going to push for. It’s not that often that a student would want to go, and so we’re not going to push that unless it aligns with their deepest desire,” he said.
Uma Blanchard ’17, who has struggled with a concussion since the end of her sophomore year, was skeptical of Counseling’s relationship with the dean’s office because she had heard rumors that the two offices communicate with each other about students often.
“I began to see a counselor off campus—I felt safer seeing someone who wasn’t connected to the dean’s office and wasn’t feeding me the Bowdoin line, which I feel is pretty much always the same which is ‘you should go home’,” said Blanchard.
Many students said it was difficult to fight the College’s push to leave even when their own medical providers felt that going home was not the best solution.
Following a conversation with her first-year dean, Jacqueline Colao ’17 decided to take a gap year a day and half into her pre-orientation trip because of a persistent concussion she sustained in high school. Upon returning to campus and still feeling the effects of her concussion, Colao chose not to take any medical leaves. Instead, beginning her sophomore year, she decided on a reduced course load for four semesters.
“[Bowdoin is] very good about letting people take time off, but that’s the go-to solution,” said Colao.
“My neurologist [said] that it was better for me for my healing process to be at school taking two courses than it would be for me to take time off because you still need your brain to be working in a certain capacity. You can’t just sit around, that’s not good either,” Colao noted.
Getting approved to take two classes—which makes a student part-time—is not easy. However, students may petition the Recording Committee for a reduced course load. The student must submit a one-page statement—as well as supporting documentation from a medical professional, faculty member or Director of Accommodations Lisa Peterson—about why he or she requires this alteration.
The Recording Committee is made up of several professors and two students. Because there are no health professionals on it, the committee relies on a rating system from the Health Center to determine the severity of a student’s medical condition.
Professor of Government Allen Springer, who is the Chair of the Recording Committee for this academic year, explained, “The Health Center will provide a rating for people to tell us that a. There is a concern and b. How confident they are it’s a serious concern. Quite honestly we take those ratings very seriously and we’re not in a position to second-guess medical professionals about whether or not medical factors should be taken into account in making a decision.”
This rating is the only metric considered by the Recording Committee, and, in addition to reports from the Health Center, takes into account doctor’s notes from outside practitioners.
Blanchard’s petition to take two classes her junior spring—which was substantiated by letters from her counselor and her parents indicating Blanchard’s home doctors’ recommendation that she remain at school and take a reduced course load—was denied. The committee’s decisions are final and do not include any face-to-face interaction between the student and the committee.
“I was a little unclear why the Recording Committee ... was able to make what was a medical decision for me. It would not have been good for me to go home because I would not have been able to use my brain,” said Blanchard.
On the other hand, Colao’s request to take two classes—supported by letters from her neurologist, Hershberger and her dean—was accepted. However, still struggling with her concussion sophomore spring, Colao did not want to go through the process of petitioning again because her concussion made the process particularly exhausting for her.
Additionally, Colao felt the committee would not be amenable to recurring requests.
“I asked multiple times why you have to petition the Recording Committee to only take two classes,” Colao said. “I was never given a clear answer on that, I was just told that’s not a thing that Bowdoin does.”
Lohmann confirmed that Bowdoin does not allow students to continually take only two courses. While students may successfully petition to take two classes, this accommodation is restricted to temporary medical issues with a clearly defined recovery period.
“We don’t really do half-time status,” Lohmann said. “We’re a residential liberal arts college. We expect students to be fully engaged in living in the college.”
Pacelli shares this position. “This is supposed to be a full-time experience and a full course load is three or more credits,” she said. “If all you can do is two credits then maybe it’s better to think about med leave.”
Pacelli said that finances do not play a role in the Recording Committee’s decision of whether to allow a student to take two courses.
Further, taking two classes does not reduce the cost of tuition aid. However, if a student takes a medical leave in the middle of a semester, he or she is not reimbursed after the fifth week of school. The Student Aid Office only covers eight semesters of aid, though a student may appeal for a ninth semester of aid with the support of the Office of Student Affairs. Pacelli noted that “[the deans] can and do step up.”
Colao’s recovery period continued for the next three semesters; she took three classes during each one. Her sophomore spring proved to be especially demanding as she struggled to balance her academics with her recovery.
“The only way I was able to stay here [my sophomore spring] and take three classes was I was able to only do school and nothing else,” Colao said. “So I ate meals by myself because talking to people at meals would bring up my symptoms ... I would nap every day for a couple hours. I never went out. I barely talked to people. Literally all I did was schoolwork.”
“I think it would be helpful to delve into more solutions about how we can get people to stay at Bowdoin and be successful while still dealing with whatever issue that caused them to think about taking time off,” Colao said.
Blanchard echoed this sentiment.
“I felt very strongly last semester that there is this notion that if you’re not totally healthy then you shouldn’t be here,” Blanchard said. “For the first time I thought ‘wow Bowdoin doesn’t want me to be here right now, because I am not perfect.’ ... I think that’s definitely a common experience."
The Orient article announcing Bowdoin’s first-ever women’s sports team is a tiny blurb titled “Hockey Jockettes” tucked away on the third page of the October 15, 1971 issue. It announces the creation of the field hockey team, which was coached by Sally LaPointe—the wife of Bowdoin’s Lacrosse Coach Mortimer LaPointe—on a voluntary basis.
Celeste Johnson ’75 and Stephanie Monaghan ’75, members of Bowdoin’s first coeducational class, both played on this first field hockey team, which was as "ad hoc" as Bowdoin’s first coeducation committees.
“I think they kind of never thought about the idea that girls need uniforms, so we ended up being given the boys’ soccer uniforms,” said Johnson in a phone interview with the Orient.
Women in their class also had options for getting involved in Bowdoin’s “physical education” and “free play” programs. According to Edward Coombs, the acting director of athletics, Modern dance, tennis and swimming, were popular with women during the fall of 1971. In terms of participation in Intramural and Intercollegiate programs, he chose to “adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy,” he wrote in his annual report to Shirley Gray, Chairman of the Committee on Physical Education-Athletics.
Women were also welcome to play in the interfraternity “White Key” teams. A November 1, 1974 Orient article called “Out of the Kitchen: Females Possess the Key” reports on women participating in the interfraternity sports.
“I can’t think of anything where we got told that we were asking for too much,” said Johnson. “It would probably be Sally [LaPointe] pushing the envelope for trying to get us more.”
Bowdoin’s Athletic Department was more prepared for the arrival of women than some other areas of the college, such as health services.
The 1971 annual report of the Committee on Athletics budgeted $9,000 to providing private showers and facilities for a women’s locker room. These changes would be made in time for the incoming Class of 1975. A later request would add hairdryers to the locker room, but the College purchased salon-style over-the-head hair dryers that the women found completely inconvenient.
“There was one time when I was changing in the locker room and a male coach walked straight through the women’s locker room,” said Christa Cornell ’75, who ran recreationally at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “So I went to protest—I had to protest a lot of things.”
Cornell said she spoke to the head of the Athletic Department and his reply was that the coaches are used to the old locker room layout and that she should be careful in case he does it again.
Although the 1971 Report saw no need for an increase in the size of the Athletics staff, the June 1972 report of President Howell’s special Commission on Athletics did see a need.
The President’s Commission wrote that “it is evident that the present staff will not be able to meet the needs of a steadily increasing number of women students.” At the time, the Athletic Department’s female staff consisted of Sally LaPointe in a voluntary coaching position and June Vail, an instructor of modern dance and the wife of an economics professor.
The Commission also designated a $5,000 fund for women’s sports for the 1972-73 year.“The women students have been most reasonable in their requests. It is imperative that maximum flexibility be built into any programs so that the interests of the women students can guide the scope and direction of those programs as they evolve,” stated the Commission’s report.
A March 13, 1973 memo to President Howell from Coombs and Dean of the College LeRoy Greason claims that the Commission’s recommendation to add a woman to the Athletics’ staff full-time “has not yet been implemented,” citing “budgetary considerations” and “a desire to wait for a clearer sense of direction in programs of particular interest to women.”
A September 21, 1973 Orient article counts LaPointe as a new member of Bowdoin’s staff, as Coach of the Women’s Athletic Program, shifting her coaching from volunteer to a formalized position.
Later that semester, an Orient article reported on the seven Bowdoin women’s sports teams, most of which were organized informally and faced challenges such as having only a few opponents—the team would play against the Brunswick Women’s Recreational Center and Brunswick High School. Director of Admissions Dick Merserau was voluntarily coaching the women’s basketball team at the time.
In 1976, the College hired Lynn Ruddy as an Assistant Coach. During that school year, a September 17 Orient article reported that 42 percent of women were involved in athletics. In this article LaPointe cited Title IX as a reason for the growing number of female athletes at Bowdoin, since they arrived at the College with athletic training from secondary school.
It is important to note that although Title IX, part of the U.S. Education Amendments, was passed in 1972, LaPointe and Ruddy claimed it did not greatly affect the operation of the Athletics Department at Bowdoin. In an Orient article on October 8, 1976, Ruddy said this was because much of Title IX deals with athletic scholarships, which aren’t awarded at Bowdoin.
“Here, Title IX is irrelevant,” said Ruddy.
However, Monaghan saw things differently.
“Title IX had gone through, so the College was scared to death about doing something wrong,” she said, referring to the College’s eagerness to accommodate women in athletics.
At the end of that academic year, LaPointe wrote to President Howell in a 1976-77 report that “the female population has risen to over 500, we are trying to handle twelve intercollegiate programs with two full time people while there are twenty-one intercollegiate programs for men with nine full time coaches and a few part timers. I have never felt the need for increasing the help for the women as I have this year.”
In 1979, the women’s indoor track team echoed this need. Team members wrote to the Athletic Director and Deans of the College asking for a separate coach for the women’s track team who can “devote his or her time to their needs.” Today, there is still one head coach for the men’s and women’s teams. However, the team has three other assistant coaches—including Ruddy, hired in 1976, who now coaches high jump and sprint—as well as volunteer coaches.
But in the years between 1971 and today, women have helped to shape a strong athletics department. LaPointe went on to coach for 20 years at the College and died in 2007.
Now, women play 16 varsity sports and three club sports at the College. However, the legacy of an all-male institution lives on. A November 11 Orient article reports that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) found a decreasing gap in the salaries of male and female head coaches throughout the league, although that gap still exists.
Sports for women at Bowdoin today take on a different role, in a balanced gender ratio college setting, than the early teams. For the first coeducational classes, women’s teams were an important refuge from the overwhelmingly male environment of the College.
“When we were out there playing field hockey, we were just elated to be able to have this opportunity to come together around a goal … it was just all us [women],” said Johnson. “As soon as the game was over, we were back in the world where it was the 10-1 ratio again … There was a lot of happiness and camaraderie … I think that was something that we really all cherished.”
Julia O’Rourke ’19 contributed to this report.
This is the first article in a series about the experiences of women from the first four-year coed graduating class at the College. This series will explore various aspects of coeducation, take a look at what some of the pioneering women of Bowdoin have done since graduation and see what’s next for women at Bowdoin today.
Click here to meet the women of '75.
On September 28, 1970, a notice from the Dean of Students was posted on bulletin boards around campus. It announced a resolution that the Governing Boards—Boards of Trustees and Overseers—of Bowdoin College approved just three days earlier:
“[...] that Bowdoin College undertake a program for the admission of circa 300 women to courses of study leading to the baccalaureate degree [over a period of four years], substantially as set forth in a report of September 1970 prepared by President Howell.”
“This was kind of a closed world and I could now go in and see what a New England men's school was like,” said Joyce Ward ’75, who was one of the nine female applicants accepted early decision for the first four-year coeducational class at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “It was like having a door open to see something that a woman my age would never have been ever able to see before.”
In that fall of 1971, 65 women would enter into Bowdoin as first years. Fourteen of them were legacies, all but two of them were from the Northeast, 26 of them had gone to private school and nine were women of color.
They would join 254 first-year men, making about a one to four ratio of women to men in their class, and about a one to 10 ratio for the College as a whole. The ratio of women to men would increase gradually over the next 20 years.
“There were so few of us [women] that it was almost like we didn’t have time to make friends with each other,” said Celeste Johnson ’75 in a phone interview with the Orient. “We had to go out and be ambassadors on behalf of all the other women.”
The notice on the bulletin boards came after the 1969 Report of the Study Committee on Underclass Campus Environment, also known as the Pierce Report. The Pierce Report cited a 1968 survey that showed 81 percent students in favor of some coeducation, and outlined the main arguments for (and one against) coeducation.
The report’s reasons for supporting coeducation mostly focused on the benefits for male students at the College. The benefits of coeducation included an increase in diversity of thought, an increase in student involvement in the humanities and in extracurricular activities and an improvement in men’s social abilities—having a “civilizing” effect on fraternities and helping them not view women as “sex objects.”
This report cited a desire to increase the size of the College from 900 men to 1200 or 1500 students so that it could compete with other liberal arts schools and offer a wider variety of courses.
According to an October 2, 1970 Orient article about the Board of Overseers’ approval of coeducation, the discussion about coeducation happened at the same time as a more urgent conversation about the “financial plight” of the College. President Roger Howell stressed that it was “economically imperative” that Bowdoin grow its student body to at least 1200 students.
“Coeducation was viewed not as an end in itself, but rather as a means of achieving economic stability,” wrote Michael Cary ’71 in the Orient.
The Pierce Report heavily cites the March 1969 Princeton Report “The Education of Undergraduate Women at Princeton,” and this document along with other records in the office correspondence of Howell show that the administration was keeping a careful watch on the progress of similar schools. By the time the report was published, it had been no more than a year since Yale and Princeton released plans to go coed and several other men’s schools—Hamilton and Williams in particular—had announced a coordinate college program with a women’s school.
“It was in the air,” said Interim Dean for Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon, whose 2011 gender and women’s studies class created a website to commemorate 40 years of coeducation. “It was in the air in the late 1960s and early 1970s that women’s worlds were exploding. And the academy was one of those places, so there were many, many schools that started to go coed at around the same time.”
Bowdoin educated female students in years prior to 1971, but they were there as part of the Twelve College Exchange program, or were transfer students. In fact, months before the first four-year female students arrived on campus, the first woman, Sue Jacobson ’71, graduated from Bowdoin after transferring from Connecticut College.
As Bowdoin began matriculating women, it formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Coeducation, as well as many committees and subcommittees for three phases of coeducation.
“I don't know that they were prepared for girls, so that made it a little challenging,” said Tawana Cook Purnell, who matriculated with the class of ’75 and transferred to Spelman College after her sophomore year at Bowdoin, in a phone interview with the Orient. “And they looked at us as though we were sort of seductive aliens.”
A February 1972 Orient poll prompted students to indicate if they preferred for Bowdoin to be an exclusively men’s college; be a men’s college accepting women as transfers; continue with the present schedule for coeducation; or progress to fully coeducational (50 percent women).
The poll revealed dissatisfaction with coeducation: “The largest body of student opinion wants faster progress toward full coeducation; the next largest group wants no coeducation at all,” wrote Richard Patard ’74 in an Orient article published on February 4, 1972.
Satisfaction with coeducation also fell along fraternity lines. According to the poll, two-thirds of independent men (that is, not a member of a fraternity), favored full coeducation, while only around 42 percent of fraternity men did.
One male respondent wrote: "They're dumb, but they are good tools. The girls have preserved my sanity, bless their dumb little hearts."
"I don't really feel that this place is co-ed; it is still a men's college with some women around,” wrote an anonymous first-year man in the 1972 Orient poll.
The history of women at Bowdoin is only a small piece of the timeline of Bowdoin, which was chartered in 1794.
“We have a long past—hundreds of years—and women have been present only for  years,” said Scanlon. “You wouldn’t expect a lot of the people we talk about to be women, because it’s recent. But even so, I think that we don’t say enough about our alums who are female. I think most people probably couldn’t name any.”
In upcoming issues of the Orient, we examine how the women of the class of ’75 navigated fraternities and social life, health services, athletics, safety and the classroom.
Julia O’Rourke ’19 and Katie Miklus ’16 contributed to this report.